What CEOs can learn from hostage negotiators

December 5, 2013, 5:31 PM UTC
Dylan McDermott, star of “Hostages” on CBS

FORTUNE — When business owners mature as leaders, they make two crucial changes in the way they run their companies: They spend considerably more time listening than talking. And instead of trying to have all the answers, they start asking more questions. They’ll cut through the fog at critical moments with exactly the right inquiry, instead of barking commands.

Why? It makes everyone around them smarter, as Liz Wiseman explains in her book Multipliers. Instead of waiting for the CEO to issue orders, employees start thinking for themselves. That amplifies their strengths and ultimately makes them better at executing the company’s strategy.

Listening is the most powerful method to persuade others to join your cause. No one knows this better than hostage negotiators. They have one job — to get the hostage-taker to put the weapon down — but they can’t just reach over and grab the barrel of the shotgun. All they can do is ask the right questions to make the hostage-taker want to surrender it on his own.

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I don’t mean to imply that your employees are criminals. But they are individuals who have their own motivations and agendas. By learning to ask them questions the way a CEO should — and listen carefully to their answers — you’ll build a happier workplace and achieve better results. Most employees will do what’s necessary to get by, but if they are enthusiastically behind you, they’ll put in a lot more effort, as leadership expert Aubrey Daniels has explained. That can be your competitive edge.

So how do you do this? Every CEO can learn from the approach taken by Mark Goulston, author of the book Just Listen. He’s a clinical psychiatrist who advises businesses based on what he learned as a former hostage negotiator and trainer for the FBI.

It starts with your meetings, which employees usually think are a giant time suck. Don’t start with reviewing the agenda or issuing directives at your next one. Instead, he suggests, ask your employees to imagine walking back to their desks afterward and think about what the meeting would have covered if it had been the best one you ever had. Go around the room and ask a few people, not just the biggest talkers, for their input. Usually, the feedback you’ll get comes down to a couple of things, he says: “We’d like to know what the most urgent priorities are,” and “I’d like to know what I should be focusing on — and if it’s different, I don’t want to be told two weeks from now that we dropped it.”

Once the meeting is underway, concentrate on listening more — with a CEO’s focus on big-picture goals — and making fewer comments. Goulston suggests using “conversation deepeners” to show employees you’re interested in what they have to say. Simply saying, “say more about that,” “hmmm,” or “really” after they made a particularly emphatic comment — such as one where they’ve used the word “always” or “never” — will prompt them to elaborate on issues that they’re passionate about. This is where you are likely to find out about things that are getting in the way of your team’s progress, whether it’s a broken copy machine or a process for handling customer service calls that’s going awry.

Once you’ve covered the most important topics at the meeting, make sure employees are leaving with the same priorities you have. Goulston recommends shaking things up with a pop quiz at the end. Ask employees to write down what they think were the most important and critical takeaways of the meeting on an index card — anonymously — and collect them.

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If your team is focused on the wrong priorities, reading the cards will help you figure that out. Let’s say some of them have completely misunderstood the next steps you’ve outlined. You might say, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is we’re all over the place. The good news is it’s my responsibility to fix that. I’m going to do a better job so in the future we can all be on the same page. If I were to ask myself what I thought were the most important, critical, and urgent things, they would be the following.”

Then outline them. “If you leave anything to their imagination, and you’re not specific, you run the risk of their working hard doing the wrong thing,” says Goulston. That can lead to disaster.

There’s a big reward for CEOs who take the time to listen to their employees and learn how to ask the right questions. They’re the ones who end up being able to grow their companies. They can trust their employees to get things done — instead of working 24/7 to do everything themselves like the vast majority of business owners. Which type of CEO do you want to be?